Blog: The Educated Reporter

States Add Flexibility, Accountability to Charter School Laws

A new report ranking states based on the transparency, accountability and flexibility of their charter school laws puts Minnesota in first place, with hat-tips to Idaho, Indiana and Mississippi for making strides toward giving families and students more choices in public education.

The timing of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ report coincides with School Choice Week, created by a coalition of nonprofits, foundations and advocacy organizations. Among them: the charter schools alliance, Democrats for Education Reform, The Foundation for Excellence in Education, and The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. 

Also this week, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Tim Scott (S.C.) unveiled their proposal for new federal legislation at an event sponsored the American Enterprise Institute. The pro-business, Washington-based think tank is marking School Choice Week by publishing 10 – yes, 10 – new papers on how to improve choice opportunities in public schools.

The legislation has been met with a mixed reception. From Lyndsey Layton’s reporting for The Washington Post:

“School choice is a well-funded and politically powerful movement seeking to privatize much of American education,” said Thomas J. Gentzel, executive director of the National School Boards Association, which has joined lawsuits challenging vouchers in several states. “We’re not against public charters, and there are some that are well-motivated. . . . But our goal is that public schools be schools of choice. We need to invest and support public schools, not divert money and attention from them to what amounts, in many cases, to experiments.”

For the NAPCS report, states were ranked based on a variety of factors including how difficult it is for charters to launch, whether states allow multiple authorizers  – which typically means organizers have more opportunities to win approval – and whether there is a cap on the total number of charter schools allowed to operate.

(Some researchers question the methodology and usefulness of ranking states based on the perceived strengths or weaknesses of charter school laws. Click here for the National Education Policy Center’s 2008 report.)

As states look for new approaches to improving public education, charter schools have been a growing factor in that equation. The alliance estimates that one out of every 20 public school students attends a charter school – more than 2.5 million total, spread out to 6,000 campuses. Many states have significant waiting lists of families who say they would opt for a charter school if there were enough seats available to accommodate their children.

Nina Rees, president and chief executive of the alliance, said the rankings reflect some positive trends, including improved transparency, quality, and oversight of charter school operations. She noted that Mississippi’s passage of its first-ever charter school law wasn’t the result of a campaign by a particular charter school provider or group, but rather came from a grassroots effort across a wide spectrum of the community.

“This was driven by families and local leaders who wanted more choices and realized the law as written wasn’t attractive enough for anyone to want to open a new charter school in the state,” Rees told me.

While Idaho, Indiana and Mississippi are grabbing the headlines for their fast treks up the rankings, Rees said more subtle gains also deserve recognition. Take Texas for example – the Lone Star State moved up just one spot – to No. 23 from No. 24 in 2013, thanks to lawmakers lifting the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to operate.

“What happened in Texas shouldn’t be underestimated,” Rees said. “It took years of hard work to get that cap lifted. That’s something that isn’t automatically reflected in our rankings.”

For more on charter schools, including a 2013 report from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, check out my prior post. You can also find background, sources to tap, and even Five Questions to Ask on our EWA Topics Page on Charters & Choice. And out today: The Center for Education Reform’s annual survey of charter schools


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